My father wasn’t aware my mother had died until the next morning, while my brothers and sisters all learned of it within minutes. He had taken his car into the garage the night before, so he couldn’t get to the hospital in any event, and he took out his hearing aids, so he never heard the call.
He had to be driven to the garage to pick up his car before he could drive to the hospital. Only then did he make the arrangements with the local funeral home to have her remains cremated (it turned out the University didn’t want bodies ravaged by cancer). Once that was taken care of, he went home and threw himself into all the organizing and form-filling that go along with death, both activities he enjoys. I think that he felt unburdened and free, as I did, not sorrowful. Mother had died quickly, her senses intact until the very end, and no one could say she hadn’t lived a long and interesting life.
She once hitched a ride on a bomber from Gander to the Azores, just because she fancied the pilot. She tumbled out of a bar in St. John’s on the night of her 21st birthday to learn D-Day had begun. She was thrown out of her room at the Ritz-Carlton in Montreal on VE Day. This was a woman who required a celebration, regardless of her wishes to the contrary.
There was an occasion to celebrate no one could deny us. Her only memorial was to have her name and dates carved on the back of her parents’ tombstone in the small Ontario town where they were buried. We could gather to view the engraving, crack a bottle of champagne, have a toast. I mentioned it in one of the gang e-mails my brothers and sisters and I were exchanging every day following mother’s death.
My youngest sister is an organizer. A very organized organizer. An unstoppable organizer. It was she who had made the lion’s share of the trips down to the Maritimes to care for my mother as she declined. My sister installed hand rails, arranged Veterans benefits, accompanied my parents to the numerous doctors they consulted at the beginning, washed and dressed mother when she couldn’t. She was a whirlwind of energy, clearly the engine behind caring for my parents, and she had now fixed her sights on the celebration.
What I had seen as simple gathering at the tombstone became a major party. Friends from New England, the Maritimes, Quebec and Ontario were invited. The entire family would be there – brothers and sisters from out west, cousins from all over Ontario, my mother’s younger sister, her oldest friend, everybody. My sister rented the parish hall. Wine and eats to be laid on. A slide show set to music, poems, speeches and eulogies, in other words, everything mother didn’t want.
After struggling with it, I had come to terms with my mother’s wish to be alone when she died. As it happened, the only person with her was her parish priest, a friendly woman who understood mother was not religious. She loved the church, she just wasn’t religious. Mother had said she wanted no one with her when she died but her doctors, and as it turned out, she got a priest.
The priest comforted her when she grew agitated and tried to speak, held her hand when she became quiet, said the Lord’s Prayer and the 23rd Psalm, and cried when mother stopped breathing. In retrospect, mother couldn’t have asked for more (or less), and neither could I.
Having had her wishes fulfilled – dying at home, going quickly, not making a fuss, and not being seen by her children at the end, I felt it was important to follow her wishes in the matter of the memorial. Perhaps it could just be a party, a piss-up, lots of talk, and singing, a wake, sitting shiva, instead of a memorial. My youngest sister is unstoppable though, and no affair is too small to be turned into an epic.
But no, my father was getting into the spirit of things too. He and youngest sister were going to rent a van, stuff it full of furniture and the dog, and make a roadtrip from the Maritimes to Ontario for the party. He had maps, he was planning routes. They were going to look at assisted living facilities. Dad was happier than he’d been in months.
It began to sink in that my mother’s death, and the way my father dealt with it, had nothing to do with me, or my brothers and sisters. It was their hard task, and they hadn’t the time for us. Once it was over, relief set in for dad, and grief for the rest of us. We felt we had been denied the chance to be with our mother when she died, but, as it turns out, we didn’t have that right, and we weren’t top-of-mind at the time.
One thing I will say. My father, imperious, bibulous, incapable around the house and selfish, had in the end stood up to his task like a man, and deserved every bit of happiness that was coming to him.